Nigeria: Meta’s Oversight Board starts case on video of Owo church massacre

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Friday, 16 September 2022 14:44, updated on Tuesday, 20 September 2022 10:39

A poster advocating against gun control, depicting U.S. President Joe Biden, and one against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg frame the entrance of the 619DW Guns and Ammo store in Merrimack, New Hampshire, U.S., November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RC2I4R94O90V

Yesterday (Sep 15), Meta's Oversight Board (OB), the independent moderation board for the platform, announced a new case looking into an Instagram video of a recent Nigerian church massacre.

The attack, suspected to be by the militant group Islamic State West Africa Province, resulted in the deaths of at least 50 people.

On 10 August, Nigerian security forces said they had arrested four suspects in the attack on the Catholic church in Owo, southwest Nigeria.

The video, posted in June, shows the aftermath of the church massacre, including “motionless bloodied bodies on the floor of a church“, the OB said.

“The sounds of a chaotic scene, including people wailing and screaming, can be heard in the background,” the OB said. Meta owns Facebook and Instagram social media platforms.

Disturbing content

The video was initially flagged by Meta and tagged with a disturbing-content warning. However, a week after the video’s publication, the poster added English-language captions.

“It states that the church was attacked by gunmen, that multiple people were killed, and described the shooting as sad. It then includes a series of hashtags, primarily about recreational weapons, allusions to the sound of guns firing, and military equipment and simulations,” the OB said.

Meta says the video was removed as the captions “glorified” the violence and included “sadistic hashtags”. However, by this point, the video had already been viewed more than 6,000 times.

In his defence, the user who posted the video says it was to “spread awareness” of the violence currently happening in Nigeria and has publicly stated that they do not support violence.

Turning a page?

Under its violent and graphic content policy, Meta says it removes any content that “glorifies violence or celebrates suffering or humiliation of others”, but allows graphic content “to help people raise awareness”.

The policy also states that warning screens are applied to “imagery that shows the violent death of a person or people by accident or murder”, and that such content can only be viewed by adults over the age of 18.

The OB said: “[it] prioritises cases that have the potential to affect lots of users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse or raise important questions about Meta’s policies.”

[Raising] awareness of human rights abuses [is favoured over the graphic nature of the video itself].

The Board has opened a public forum to allow people to submit both their views and evidence, which will be evaluated before a decision is made.

It is likely, based on the OB’s record (in 2021, 7 out of 11 cases were overturned), that Meta’s decision will be overturned by the Board and the video will be allowed on the platform. In multiple cases, including a recent upheld decision of a video in Sudan showing violence against civilians, raising “awareness of human rights abuses” is favoured over the graphic nature of the video itself.

PR stunt or policy?

The OB was established in November 2018, shortly after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s US senate hearing drew criticism and attention to the ethical concerns of Facebook’s actions and access to user data.

The OB is the first of its kind for social media. Its main purpose is to be the last point of judgement on content that contains human rights abuses and concerns flagged by the community.

So far, the board has issued 27 global decisions, with only three involving the African continent: relating to reported cases from Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa. The OB says it has made moderation decisions in the ‘Global South’ and ‘Global Majority’ “a core priority”.

Zuckerberg described the Board as a kind of “supreme court”, a go-between for the user and the social media giant. The Board officially began its work in October 2020,  comprising 20 members.

Independent and impartial?

It is not clear how independent and impartial the OB is from Meta, Facebook and Instagram.

The OB describes itself as a “service provider” to Facebook and Instagram. On its website, it says: “Both the board and its administration are funded by an independent trust and supported by an independent company that is separate from Facebook.”

Currently, the OB is run by a trust that manages its members, operations as well as expenses, a method it says is designed to ensure impartiality.

“The trust will receive funding from Facebook, and the trustees will act in line with their fiduciary duties. Facebook will appoint independent trustees,” says the OB’s governance page. This includes removing members from the Board if they happen to violate the OB’s code of conduct.

In response to questions about impartiality, the OB says: “Meta has made one-off donations to the Trust, but in a financial, operational and statutory sense, we are completely independent. Meta has no role in our decision making; our operational independence is ensured through staff dedicated to the work of the Board who are independent of Meta and the financial assets are safeguarded by the Trust,” it says.

Cori Crider, Director of Foxglove Legal, an organisation that campaigns for Big Tech regulation and transparency, is unimpressed with the oversight board. She says, “I don’t doubt that the Facebook oversight board on their six-figure consultancy salaries are esteemed and well-intentioned people.”

“The problem with the Oversight Board is the structure. Facebook literally wrote the rules by which the Oversight Board has to play. They determined what it can and can’t look at. So it doesn’t function in any sense like a court. But of course, famously, judges are meant to be independent of the people on which they’re sitting in judgement. And I’m afraid when the people on whom you’re sitting in judgement wrote the rules that you play by, that independence is not there,” she added.

The Oversight Board responded, “Meta’s funding went into an irrevocable trust, which funds an LLC that is separate from Meta. As a result, the operations budget and compensation are not under the control of Meta.”

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